“Well, you met me in the dungeon, and your kindness is what got you saved, so I count that as you saving yourself.”
“Kindness?” She makes a pfft noise. “I was just trying to get you to stop yelling and drawing attention.”
“You’re deflecting.” I return her smack. “You warned me, remember? Tried to help me, even when you were in a bad situation. No matter what you’d been through, you were still kind. That’s why we’re here, lying around in the warm sun, free as can be.”
“Naked as can be, too.” She stretches her arms over her head. “I could get used to this.” She sighs, and after a long pause, says quietly, “I’m glad I met you that day.”
“So am I.”
Her snore punctuates my sentiment, and I smile a little. At least she’s predictable.
I yawn and stretch my arms out, too. The sun peeks through my eyelids and promises me the day is just as bright as ever.
I don’t know how long I doze for, but I know what wakes me: a guttural roar that slices through my dreams with a petrifying echo.
I wake cold and uncomfortable. She’s gone. Gone from my bed, only her scent and the obsidian blade remaining.
I’m on my feet immediately. “Gareth!”
His eyes fly open and he looks around. “I fell asl—”
“Gone.” I kick a log in the dying fire. “That changeling has kidnapped my mate!”
“Hang on, now.” He spins, peering through the trees. “They can’t be far.”
My heart twists, and my primal need to find Taylor is like a thorny arrow wedged in my gut. I taste the air, trying to find some trace of her.
“This way.” Gareth takes off through the trees.
I follow and catch the same scent that drew him. Blumerin. It grows in this cursed forest, but the smell is loud, out of place, and underneath it—I can get the faintest hint of Taylor.
I barrel past him and draw my dagger. How could I let her leave in the night? What sort of mate am I? First the witch and now this. She keeps slipping through my fingers, no matter how hard I try to hold her close.
A stream trickles ahead of me, a wide pool glinting in the sun. The ground is disturbed, flowers bent. She came this way. I’m wild, my body rushing before my mind can even catch up. But then I stop.
I. Stop. Dead.
Her eyes closed, hair damp, face peaceful, skin tantalizing, body delectable—she lies nude, her breasts offered to the sun, the pink tips soft, her stomach fair and then the slight tuft of neat hair between her thighs. My mind goes blank, and the bond snaps tight. My cock pulses and my mouth goes dry. I must claim her, must mark her as mine before any other male sees her. I will do it now.
I step towards her.
“What—” Gareth gasps as he catches up.
Gareth. Gareth is looking at my incomparable mate. I turn on him and draw my sword with a roar that shakes the trees.
He draws his blade and holds it across his body. Defensive. “Leander, the bond is turning you—”
“She is mine!” I rush him, my sword flying with a fury that seems to infuse the metal with extra bite.
He falls back, his blade dancing with mine as I swing and thrust, each step sending him farther onto his heels.
“Leander!” he yells when I strike a particularly hard blow that would have felled any other fae. “I’m your friend.”
“You looked upon Taylor!” I swing again, and he blocks.
“I wasn’t looking at her!”
“A lie,” the feral fae whispers. “He wants our mate. She is not claimed, not marked, fair game.”
I advance again, putting all my might into an onslaught that lights up the woods with the sounds of battle. With a final, spinning blow, I knock his sword from his hand, and he falls back against a tree, his hands up.
My breath heaving, I raise my sword to hew his head from his body, ending his immortal life.
“Leander!” A cry from behind makes me blink.
“What are you doing? Let him go!” Soft footsteps through the flowers, a scent that twines through my dreams. Taylor.
I turn to her and sheath my blade. Gareth was just a distraction. Claiming my mate is more important. Once I’ve marked her, there will be no challengers for her.
She stares up at me, her damp dress clinging to her body. I know what every inch looks like. Now I just need to taste her. I advance, my blood thundering through me, her presence calling to me from every direction.
She steps back, her hands out in front of her. “What is wrong with you?”
“You are my mate.” I swipe her hands away and pull her into my arms. “Mine.” Kissing her is the only thing I’ve ever done that has felt absolutely right. There is no error here, no shortcoming or doubt. Her mouth was made for me, and I am her devoted slave. I will kiss her until she knows those truths in her deepest heart, can feel me in there. She mumbles against my lips, and I slide my tongue against hers, taking advantage of every opening as I lift her against me.
Her small hands clutch my shoulders as I back her against a tree. When my cock nudges against the warmth between her thighs, I groan and delve my tongue even deeper. She opens her mouth wider, and I take the invitation, kissing her with a passion that engulfs both of us.
I palm her bottom, then hike up her dress. Her legs open farther for me, her heels digging into my backside.
She pushes against my chest lightly, then pulls back. “Leander, wait.”
I follow her and press my forehead to hers, my fangs grazing her lips. “Can’t you feel it?” I growl. Her heart pounds, the vein at her throat fluttering.
“I feel …” She stares into my eyes. “I admit I feel something. I want …” She shakes her head. “I don’t know what I want.”
“I can taste your arousal, little one.” I push my hips against her and hiss at the contact. Claim her, claim her. “I know what you want.”
“This is just too fast.” Her gaze strays to my lips, and her body tightens for a moment. “I mean, I want this.” Her cheeks redden. “I can admit that. But I’m not ready.”
“Fast?” I scoff. “I should have claimed you the second I saw you, thrown you down on that table and made you moan.”
She frowns. “You can’t just take whatever you want like that.”
I press her harder into the tree and grip her thighs. “I am the king of the winter realm. I take what is mine.”
The frown deepens. “Now you’re just being an ass.”
“An ass?” I laugh. “No one has called me names in quite some time.”
She pushes against my chest. “Maybe you need someone to call you names to remind you when you’re acting like a big douche.”
“What is a douche?”
“It’s what you are. Now, put me down.”
“Let you go?” I tighten my grip. “Never.”
“Put me down. Now.” The bite in her tone cuts through my mating haze.
I set her down gently, even though I want so badly to keep her in my grip.
“What is wrong with you?” She crosses her arms and glares up at me. “One minute you are gentle and kind and, and hand-feeding me, for Chrissakes, and then you’re all alpha asshole and growly and insane!”
The mating haze begins to clear, and my head begins to work again. I scrub a hand down my face. Her anger is dissolving the fog, bringing me back to myself, sending the feral need back into my recesses. By the Ancestors, she’s right. I have behaved like an ass.
“It’s not his fault.” Gareth eases around to my left. “It’s the bond. In the old days, you would have felt it and mated with him by now. But now, with the curse, who knows how the bond is affected. I can’t be sure, but the longer he goes without claiming you, I’m afraid the more feral he’ll become.”
Gareth. The world snaps back into focus. I just attacked him. Almost killed him. My best friend. “I am so sorry.” I step back, away from them lest I try and harm them again. “I don’t know what came over me.” I think back and get a glimpse of fair skin, pink nipples, a thatch of neat hair, and— “No.” I rub my eyes. If I dwell on that, I’ll go mad again. “I saw you, and I became a creature of instinct. A douche, as you said.”
She smiles a little. “Douche may be a tad harsh.”
“It was just a little skin.” Beth walks up and finger-combs her hair. “You really need to learn how to be a gentleman at all times, nude or otherwise, your majesty.”
Gareth clears his throat. “It was a lot of skin. Too much. Acting like two nymphs. And I know you were the one who led Taylor astray.” He shakes a finger at her but doesn’t meet her eyes.
I look more closely at him. Is he …blushing?
“I led her to a bath,” she counters. “You fae brutes may be perfectly happy romping around without cleaning up, but we aren’t.”
“Fae brutes?” Gareth narrows his eyes. “For a changeling slave, you have a mouth on you.”
“I know. I catch you staring at it,” she deadpans.
Gareth looks stricken, and a belly laugh rolls out of me.
Taylor laughs, too, then holds out her hand and opens her fingers. “Mic drop right there.”
“Mic drop?” I cock my head at her.
“It’s a human world thing. Just saying that Gareth started it, but Beth finished it.”
“Hmm.” Humans have such odd terminology, but I want to learn more.
“We need to break camp,” Gareth grumbles, his eyes downward as Beth turns and saunters off through the trees.
“We will.” I grab the hem of my tunic and pull it over my head. Satisfaction filters through me as Taylor’s gaze rakes across my bare flesh. “But first we need to wash ourselves.” I reach to untie my pants, and Taylor spins quickly, her dress flying out around her.
“You can’t just strip in front of me!” She bows her head.